Baker pushing right buttons for Astros

Skipper explains decision to have Maldonado as automatic runner in Friday’s win

September 18th, 2021

When Kyle Tucker struck out to end the ninth inning with the score tied in Friday's extra-innings win, the limited consolation for the Astros was that he was lined up to be their runner to start at second base in the 10th. Tucker is one of the team's fastest baserunners, per Statcast.

But when the Astros went up to bat in the bottom of the 10th, it was Martín Maldonado -- who is certainly not known for his speed -- on second base, instead of Tucker. At first glance, it might have looked like a questionable decision. But for manager Dusty Baker, there was a method to the madness, and it ultimately paid off in a big way.

When Jason Castro doubled to lead off the ninth, he was replaced by Chas McCormick as a pinch-runner. That was a relatively easy decision, since McCormick is one of Houston's fastest runners, and he represented the potential game-winning run.

But when McCormick didn’t come around to score in the ninth, Maldonado had to enter the game, since Castro had been removed and Maldonado was Houston’s only other catcher. A straight swap would have put Maldonado as the No. 9 hitter, in Castro’s place, but that spot was due up fifth in the 10th inning -- making it highly possible that the game could be hanging in the balance. Maldonado entered Saturday batting .170 on the season with a .565 OPS.

Thus, Baker opted for a double switch, involving both the Castro/Maldonado change and McCormick staying in the game by replacing Tucker in the outfield. While Tucker's offensive stats fare better than McCormick's, Tucker’s at-bat to finish the ninth meant that his spot wasn’t likely to come up again until at least the 11th. Because it was a double switch, the Astros were able to put McCormick in Castro’s spot and Maldonado in Tucker’s spot.

“Would you rather take a chance of Maldy batting fifth with the runners in possible scoring position to win or tie the game? Or would you rather have him running at second? That's what we took into account," Baker said. "It's the fact that he had the chance to come up in a game-winning situation.

“We started adding it up and said, ‘This is going to roll back around to this position.’ I'd rather take a chance on Maldy as a baserunner than Maldy hitting in that situation.”

Ultimately, the plan worked to perfection. Though Maldonado doesn't have the speed of some of his teammates, he does have good instincts -- and he tagged up and advanced to third on Carlos Correa’s deep flyout to lead off the 10th. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, since Correa had hit a laser at an exit velocity of 105.8 mph with an expected batting average of .740. But Maldonado correctly read that Arizona’s center fielder had a play, and he went back to the bag early enough to tag.

One batter later, Maldonado saw that Jake Meyers’ blooper to right field was likely to drop in behind Arizona’s drawn-in infield, and he scored with ease to tie the game. Had Maldonado stayed at second on Correa’s flyout, he was unlikely to score on such a hit.

As for McCormick, that spot in the order ended up being every bit as crucial as Baker had anticipated. While there was a bit of good fortune for the Astros in the form of a bizarre walk-off hit by pitch, it happened after McCormick fouled off a pair of tough pitches. It’s entirely possible that the at-bat could have played out quite differently, had D-backs reliever Tyler Clippard been less cautious of the opposing hitter.

On a night where offense was hard to come by, it’s worth noting that Baker’s bullpen analysis proved prescient, as well. Before the game, Baker said he had chosen to rest left-handed relievers Blake Taylor and Brooks Raley in the final games of the previous series so they would be fully rested for Arizona. The D-backs' lineup features several left-handed hitters, and Baker knew innings were at a premium in a bullpen game started by long reliever Brandon Bielak.

As it turned out, Taylor and Raley combined for two scoreless innings early in the game, and that kept the Astros close, despite Madison Bumgarner taking a no-hitter into the sixth.

With postseason play just around the corner, the AL West-leading Astros entered Saturday with five wins over their last six games, as they look to secure a fourth division title in five years. Fortunately for Houston, it appears that both players and coaches are hitting their stride at an ideal time.